Friday, February 03, 2023 | Rajab 11, 1444 H
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Beijing’s shanties: Towns of hope and despair



A nerve centre for migrant workers who stream in from around the country in search of a better life, Black Bridge Village is a place of industry and desperation.

Posters on the wall offer easy money for blood donations: 400 ml — almost one US pint — earns between 400 and 500 yuan, enough to pay the rent for a small room.

Ramshackle structures of brick, corrugated iron and wood have mushroomed everywhere with little thought or design, the jobs on offer are often menial and low paid.

Red lights illuminate beauty parlours, where women, sometimes offering more than just haircuts, wait to entertain the many lonely men who have come from around the country to work in Beijing’s thriving construction industry.

China’s capital relies on migrant labour to keep its economy humming, but high real estate prices and China’s restrictive residence registration system, known as hukou, have driven many into shanty towns on Beijing’s periphery.

Black Bridge Village — known as Heiqiaocun in Chinese — is one such place. Looped by a railroad the government uses to test trains, the whole village has found itself on the wrong side of the tracks.

Access to health care and schooling is limited. Creature comforts are few: Families huddle in unheated, one-room apartments with no running water.

Even on the occasions when Beijing’s often smoggy skies are blue, the air here can be thick with smoke as many use old-fashioned coal braziers for heat.

A woman surnamed Yang and her husband live in a typical one-room apartment off a dusty alley.

It has no toilet or shower. Families stir fry dishes from home in a simple shared kitchen in the hallway, the smell of ginger and garlic mixing with the coal smoke.

Back in their hometown in eastern Jiangsu province, the couple lived in a roomy two-storey home. They chose such modest accommodation in this village close to the capital to save more money.

Ms. Yang works as a maid for foreign families, travelling to central Beijing to clean and cook in roomy apartments.

Her husband works in construction, earning 10,000 yuan ($1,500) a month for carpentry, a good wage in a country where the average salary in major urban areas was 6,000 yuan in 2015.

Many migrant workers in the village have tried to create a taste of home to help them navigate the tough living conditions they endure to earn a better, regular wage.

Groceries sell exotic ingredients for making spicy dishes from southwest Sichuan province, which many of the town’s residents call home.

Steam billows from the windows of tiny carry out restaurants, where cooks make dumplings and hardy white bread called mantou for workers who hail from China’s frozen north.

For all the hardship, many earn wages they could not hope to match in their home region.

And for those who would rather put their faith in lady luck, a small betting parlour sells lottery tickets. — AFP

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